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03 Jan 2006 09:52
Unidentified gunmen attacked the two main military barracks in Côte d’Ivoire’s largest city, Abidjan, on Monday, setting off a battle with security forces that officials said killed 10 people and heightened tensions in the war-divided nation.
Gunfire and heavy explosions shook the military barracks at Akuedo, located in north-eastern Abidjan, for about an hour before a tense calm returned to the area.
Armed forces chief General Phillipe Mangou went on state television afterward to reassure nervous residents, saying military forces had repulsed the attack.
Army spokesperson Colonel Hilaire Gohourou Babri said seven of the attackers and three members of the security forces were killed in the battle. An Associated Press reporter on the scene saw four bodies at the two camps—one soldier and three young men in civilian clothes who security forces said were among the assailants.
Babri said dozens of the attackers had been arrested.
He ruled out rumours that there had been a mutiny, but there was still no word on who carried out the assault, the first since a new national unity government took office last week to help steer the country toward delayed elections due later this year.
Côte d’Ivoire, the world’s top cocoa producer, has been split between a rebel-held north and a loyalist south since a failed 2002 coup in Abidjan sparked days of fighting in the city.
Mangou called on residents living near Akuedo to remain indoors while security forces conducted a search for the assailants, some of whom he said had fled in civilian clothes.
“I wanted to reassure the population and tell them the situation is under control,” Mangou said.
The camps are separated by a highway, and the newer one is home to heavy armaments and a tank battalion.
Elsewhere in the city, paramilitary police set up roadblocks on main roads, turning back the few cars that ventured out. Streets were deserted as a result, and tanks could be seen deployed protectively around the national television station.
French peacekeepers sent helicopters into the skies above Akuedo.
The body of one of the dead soldier’s could be seen just inside the gate of one of the camps, covered by a sheet.
Nearby, the body of a man in dark clothes lay on a main highway. Soldiers said he was an assailant who commandeered a military vehicle and fired at them, prompting a hail of return fire that ripped apart the front end of the vehicle and melted its frame.
Two other bodies in civilian clothing could be seen outside the camps. Two of the attackers were captured alive by security forces. They sat in the sun, both shirtless and bloodied.
On December 1, authorities repelled another brief attack on a paramilitary police camp in Abidjan. Authorities have not named the suspected attackers.
The latest violence was sure to raise tensions in the country, which has been on edge since President Laurent Gbagbo cancelled planned October elections, blaming the war and rebels’ failure to disarm. Afterward, the United Nations and the African Union endorsed a one-year extension of Gbagbo’s five-year mandate, which rebels and opposition leaders fiercely opposed.
Last week, a new 32-member national unity government composed of rebel, opposition-party and ruling-party ministers took office. A new Prime Minister, Charles Konan Banny, was chosen by the warring sides to arrange the new Cabinet.
Rebel leader Guillaume Soro was named Minister of Reconstruction, while Gbagbo loyalists and foes were among the new ministers.
Later in the day, Gbagbo toured the two military barracks. Banny condemned Monday’s attack, saying in a statement that he “regrets that people use violence and weapons to express their demands and settle their differences, whatever the reasons”.
About 10 000 peacekeepers—both French and UN forces—are deployed in the country.—Sapa-AP
Associated Press writers Pauline Bax and Parfait Kouassi contributed to this report
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